Hustling the Left
Hustling the Left
In August of last year, just days before the Republican National Convention in New York, I received an email from a local (Los Angeles) chapter of Not In Our Name (NION). The group, which I have never been a member of, had been organizing a letter-writing campaign with hopes of pressuring Mayor Michael Bloomberg to grant permits to protest on the streets of New York against the Convention. NION's email proclaimed enthusiastically how Larry Flynt had endorsed their letter-writing campaign. As a woman of color who opposes the type of violence that Hustler Magazine* *celebrates in their publication, I was dismayed that NION chose to align themselves with Flynt. For that reason, I sent a personal email back to NION, asking to be removed from the list. Los Angeles NION organizer Robert Corsini not only responded to me, but also forwarded his response, along with my original personal email, to both of my bosses at the local community radio station I work with, and to Larry Flynt Publishing. Because he violated my trust and attempted to ridicule me, I responded to Robert Corsini and the entire email list to explain my disgust with Hustler. A flame war quickly erupted, with people on all sides of the issue exchanging emails. What has followed is an interesting example of power politics, the most recent round ending in Hustler publishing several extremely offensive articles and cartoons condemning me as a 'femi fascist' for having the courage to speak out against their brand of pornography as a form of institutionalized gender and racial violence. The experience has led me to examine the greater umbrella of the so-called 'left', and to scrutinize the conditions under which a Goliath like Flynt is sanctioned by it.
In the months after the November election, the left has started looking at our failures in communication and subsequent lack of action while seeking new directions in which to move and create change. Because there are a vast myriad of principles that inform our movement, we often look like, and therefore act, as a deeply divided lot. As a woman of color, it remains difficult to locate the voices and actions that may motivate me, and others like me, to connect with what remains a heterosexist, white male dominated popular left. From protests and rallies in Boston and New York, to lectures and readings in my hometown of Los Angeles, I find that, not unlike 95% of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention who, according to the Boston Globe, opposed the war and still supported a pro-war candidate, we have moved to a rudimentary center and made silent the theories and practices that could flourish by incorporating the voices and actions of those on the margins. The cost of what is in effect the intellectual segregation of the voices of radical women of color is immeasurable: by somewhat unconsciously choosing an easy center, we stifle the dialogue and critique which could meaningfully question what it is we stand for.
Instead, we tacitly support pornographers like Larry Flynt of Hustler Magazine. Flynt has gained credit for squeezing the work of progressive authors between images of violent degradation. By hiding behind this fact, Flynt is able to repel criticisms about the racist and misogynistic culture he perpetuates. Hustler Magazine now publishes articles of popular left icons such as Greg Palast and Christian Parenti. It is important to understand the type of magazine that Larry Flynt publishes: Hustler is not erotica or sex-positive in any sense of those terms, instead it is pro-capitalist hard-core pornographic degradation. Historically, Hustler Magazine goes many steps beyond simple pornography by using hate speech, directly misogynist, and at times pedophilic imagery throughout its pages.
For 25 years, B Dwaine Tinsley was Hustler Magazine's cartoon editor and creator of 'Chester the Molester', a cartoon which depicted Tinsley's character, Chester, sexually abusing prepubescent girls. In 1989, Tinsley's own daughter testified that he molested and forced her take birth control pills from age 13 through 18. He was convicted of sexually abusing his daughter as well as having sexual contact with another 13-year-old girl, whose accusations originally led to his arrest. Tinsley served a nearly two-year sentence, all the while continuing to contribute to Hustler Magazine. Although his conviction was eventually overturned due to a legal technicality, Hustler continued to publish his degrading images, even as he spent time in prison for sexual abuse. Although Tinsley died in 1990, Hustler continues to honor his legacy by publishing heterosexist, and racist work through its magazine. Even while declaring that he is against child pornography, another one of Flynt's many publications includes Barely Legal which uses images of the youngest girls who are allowed to pose nude by law. If such laws did not exist, or were altered to allow the degradation of even younger girls, one can guess that Flynt would print those as well.
In an interview with Guerilla News Network in May 2004, Greg Palast said, 'Larry Flynt is putting [his writing] between beaver shots.' One can only guess what he means if Palast confuses women's genitalia with animals that live near woodlands. He may have been prompted to use essentializing language in association with a magazine that does the same through words and images. In the May interview Palast was talking about gaining exposure for his work in a number of avenues, but it is tough to imagine what type of would-be activists purchase Hustler for enlightening reading material. If such people exist (and I seriously wonder if they do),* *they are the same people who have no qualms with the images of degradation. After being desensitized by viewing women represented as objects and being sexually mutilated, it is unlikely that this audience possesses the psychic ability to be astonished, for example, by images of torture at Abu Ghraib. While Palast can note that his audience is increasing, Flynt can use the work of progressive journalists such as Palast as a scapegoat for avoiding the problematic issues of his product.
In a full hour interview with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, which aired on hundreds of stations throughout the country several months ago, Larry Flynt was briefly questioned about the exploitation of women in his work. Flynt's response was that, 'most of the criticism comes from the radical feminist movement, who really [sic] only claim to fame is to urge a bunch of ugly women to march behind.' This is the same group of women who screamed in the margins in the days leading to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, yet on hundreds of popular left stations, Flynt's words went unchallenged. Goodman did not include another guest to confront Flynt. Instead, she read a dated quote in which Gloria Steinem voiced her opposition to Flynt and compared his use of the First Amendment to racist and fascist publications that similarly serve to degrade people. Flynt's response was short and easy: that Steinem's work was useful in the 1960s, that she is out of touch today, and that if she is offended by his magazine, she should not read it. Goodman's questions quickly moved on to another topic. Before the interview ended, Flynt adds that '[T]here are only a handful of us that are lobbing grenades into the Bush camp. It's me, Michael Moore, Howard Stern, Molly Ivins, D.H. Hatfield, Greg Palast, you know, you can count them all on both hands.'
Flynt's myopic view of the world makes him blind to the work that so many others do. And, because he controls a tremendous amount of capital, he is able to dodge criticisms against his degradation of women while legitimizing himself to the popular left by publishing progressive journalists. Flynt has become sophisticated at amplifying his voice through his enormous means of production to avoid any real concerns about his product.
In the days that followed, the program was flooded with comments condemning Flynt and the broadcast. Democracy Now's response was to have two feminists, Susie Bright and Susan Brison, debate the merits of pornography, centered around the Flynt interview. Democracy Now attempted to have these women argue over the issue of pornography- while two weeks earlier the program featured a longer interview with a pornographer, unchallenged.
Perhaps taking its lead from Democracy Now, the February issue of Hustler featured an interview with Susie Bright. Besides several incorrect assumptions she makes about me, I was surprised to learn that Bright believes that Hustler is a 'deliberately proletariat' publication, with a 'working-class Southern flavor'. A white feminist who conveniently avoids the issues of racism in Hustler raised by women of color, Bright attempts to rely on an inconsistent class analysis and connects what are 'disgusting' and 'icky' images with that which she deems to be 'working-class', claiming that it makes the publication easier to attack. Rather than aligning herself with the real struggles of working women, Bright has chosen to align herself to millionaire Larry Flynt. Towards the end of the interview published by Hustler, Bright begins to critique the publication itself, alluding to 'disrespectful agreements' between herself and Hustler. At this point, Hustler cuts off the interview entirely, slashing any agency she may have thought she would have had in the interview. When I first read the Bright interview, I was hurt but only slightly surprised that a white feminist would allow Hustler to use her for their own ends. I have never met or spoken with Bright, but it saddens me that someone who calls herself a feminist could say that because of my critique of Hustler, I would wind up 'in a room all by [my]self.' I would not be alone in Bright's imaginary room if she had reached out to me, a working class woman, before postulating fallacies in a publication that serves to physically (and in the case of Bright, intellectually) use women for their immediate gratification.
In the same issue, Hustler attempts to enlist another white woman, Amy Alkon, to attack me. Alkon questions my commitment to free speech, yet fails to realize that it was Hustler Editors Mark Cromer and Bruce David who first attacked me for using free speech in my simple request to be removed from an email list. Alkon unsuccessfully attempts to compare me to white supremacist David Duke making no genuine connection for her comparison. In a separate yet similarly incoherent argument, Alkon asks, 'Aura, what's the answer? Should we all go around in burkhas? Isn't that the oppression you're professing to want to prevent ' in between your position to work out your jealous rage against rich old Larry Flynt?' Obviously Alkon, like Bright, has not taken the time to inform herself on my positions, and her suggestion that I am jealous of Flynt is nothing short of ludicrous.
In another edition of Hustler, the magazine goes far beyond words and uses caricatures of me in a desperate attempt to further speak vilify me. I have not made any public statements regarding Hustler or anyone related to its publication since August 2004, yet after half-a-year of me remaining silent on the issue, Hustler continues to attack me, featuring horrific images of me: in some, I read a poem a Valentine's Day poem, 'Roses are red, Violets are blue, If you're a white male, I'm gonna kill you'; another has me smashing a microphone because, in the cartoon, a caller into the station I work at sends an email suggesting that I like 'having [my] mouth near a microphone because it reminds [me] of a white male's cock.'; yet another cartoon includes a line of 'Aura Bogado Jewelry'- in it, I have a penis pierced through my tongue.
While attempting to position his magazine as a progressive publication, Flynt is using the tactics of reactionary conservatives such as Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh to attack women who stand against violence degradation. In a recent book, Savage complains that the New York Times is contaminated by 'femi-fascists, the Commu-Nazis'. I wouold argue that it's no coincidence that in the February issue of Hustler, the editors refer to me as a 'femi-fascist' and a 'Stalinist', and commissioned a caricature of me as some type of Nazi/fascist. These unfounded characterizations are so similar to conservative attacks on other feminists that it's difficult to distinguish them in print. Both camps (if they are indeed, truly different) make unfounded attacks that have little to do with the real issues at hand. Interestingly, while constantly labeling me a Stalinist (a fascist dictator whose authoritarian reign I have never condoned in any way), Hustler has apparently not spent enough time investigating the profound connections between NION and the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). While NION does not force their members to affiliate themselves in any way to the RCP, NION was founded by C Clark Kissinger, of the RCP, therefore many of NION's organizers are members of the RCP. If nothing else, Hustler can be counted on for getting even the simplest facts wrong.
In this horrendous era of the Bush administration, the left has grown- people are finding reasons to join it daily; but is this so-called movement better off defining itself purely by numbers, or do the ideas that inform our movement still matter? If Flynt is truly bringing a new audience and activists to this movement, we cannot forget who they are. They are people who support the degradation of women for capital. They are people who support the notion of women as objects for amusement, hence 'male entertainment'. While social movement theorists cite that electoral politics serve only to co-opt our work, we must ask ourselves if publications like Hustler Magazine don't do the same. As the left continues to grow, our broader ideas about liberation should grow as well. We cannot forget that if we build bridges with racists and sexists, we will burn bridges with women of color and others who oppose oppression at every level of class, race and gender.
Aura Bogado works with KPFK Radio and Free Speech Radio News (FSRN). The opinions stated herein reflect the views of the author alone and are not those of KPFK or FSRN management or staff, nor do they reflect the editorial positions of KPFK or FSRN.